Blisters, glory in U.S. craze for extreme hiking, trail running

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 14, 2015 12:43 PM

By David Sherwood

PORTLAND, Me. (Reuters) - It required running at night on rock-strewn slopes, then sleeping as little as an hour before resuming the daily pace of 47 miles (76 km) that would shatter the record for the fastest-ever completion of the Appalachian Trail.

Scott Jurek claimed the title of quickest trek of the 2,180-mile (3,508-km) trail from Georgia to Maine, finishing on Sunday after 46 days, 8 hours, 7 minutes. He beat the previous record by more than three hours.

“It was an emotional roller coaster. Plenty of times I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” said Jurek, 41, a professional athlete from Boulder, Colorado, who regularly runs ultra-marathons beyond the standard 26.2-mile marathon.

Recalling his ankle-threatening night runs and the painful blisters that formed beneath calluses on his feet, Jurek said what didn't kill him made him stronger.

That sentiment has become the hallmark of a U.S. trend toward more extreme, but more rewarding, forms of running and hiking, participants say.

“There are so many people that have tried a big city marathon, or even run 15 or 20 big city marathons. Now, they’ve started to ask, ‘What’s the next challenge?'” said Bryon Powell, editor-in-chief of irunfar.com, a website dedicated to long-distance trail running.

The number of trail running and hiking competitions people can enter has boomed recently, Powell said. In fast-packing, they don backpacks. Some have support, as did Jurek — with crews carrying their food and camping gear. Others go it alone.

What they all have in common is an unorthodox race track such as the Pacific Crest trail along the entire U.S. West Coast, and a need for speed.

In Colorado this month, Andrew Hamilton, 40, a father of four, said he broke a speed record by climbing all of the state's 58 peaks higher than 14,000 ft (4,267 meters) in just nine days, 21 hours and 51 minutes, the Denver Post reported.

    “The idea is simple: To get to finish as fast as possible,” says Peter Bakwin, a runner with a website that tracks self-reported trail running speed records.

Competitive Americans for generations have felt the urge to see who can run fastest up their local hill, Bakwin said.

"The difference now is, the Internet allows you to get some recognition outside of your own community,” Bakwin said.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy doesn’t verify records like Jurek’s, officials said. Neither does Bakwin’s website. Instead, competitors are encouraged to be transparent and use GPS tracking, as Jurek did.

“In our culture of pro-athletes and multi-million dollar contracts, it’s really refreshing to know there’s still a sport that relies on the honor system,” says Jennifer Pharr Davis, the women’s Appalachian Trail thru-hike record-holder.

Jurek, whose final, celebratory Facebook post garnered more than 27,000 “likes,” said that "you walk away with so many life lessons.”

“These are some of the only experiences that you can’t buy anymore," he said.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Lisa Lambert)